In the late twenties a young American artist and Cézanne enthusiast by the name of Erle Loran moved into Cézanne’s studio. For two years Erle wandered the countryside around Aix-en-Provence and photographed the scenes that the deceased artist had painted. The result was a remarkable and intelligent book. Cézanne’s Composition, now only in paperback, is a clear-headed artist’s analysis of what he thought was going on in Cézanne’s mind and, more importantly, what was going on in his pictures.
Two things have always struck me about Erle’s photos vis-à-vis Cézanne’s paintings. First, there’s the ordinariness of the subjects themselves — pedestrian views, buildings, quarries, farms — the relative formlessness of Mont Sainte Victoire which he painted many times. Second, the paintings’ closeness to actuality. We are looking at an artist who was trying to get it right.
Then we compare the interest of Cézanne’s surfaces, their limitations, their mannerisms. We look at the wooden color, deadly blacks, tentative search for line, struggling volumes, eye-control devices, absence of aerial perspective, and the characteristic fidgets.
Cézanne, it seems to me, was an artist who was conscious of his shortcomings. “It is for me to only show the way,” he said in a depressed moment. He took a long time with his paintings, like an amateur. While few would admit it, he worked within the safety and conservatism that his style permitted, and it was his style that won — a unique fidget carried from canvas to canvas and in a million modifications into the studios of the world.
PS: “I advance all of my canvas at one time.” (Cézanne)
“Many of Cézanne’s statements and letters have led to the critical error of assuming his theories to be in accord with his actual work.” (Erle Loran)
Esoterica: I was in Cézanne’s studio in the suburbs of Aix. His coat and hat hung near the door, as if he were still somewhere around. Paint spotted the floor, like my studio and perhaps yours. The window-glass had that uneven surface one sees in old windows. Through it the orchard, the white buildings and tiled roofs of Aix were broken into little swatches of color — like a Cézanne. Could it be?
This letter was originally published as “Fidget” on October 20, 2000.